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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Going Gaga with Batsheva

by Rhea Daniels

On November 14th, I participated in a master class led by Batsheva company dancers Bobbi Smith and Ian Robinson at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Batsheva company classes teach Gaga technique, the movement language developed by the company’s Artistic Director Ohad Naharin. The workshop was presented in conjunction with the company’s US premiere of Naharin’s Sadeh21 at BAM.

Batsheva's Zina Zinchenko and Bobbi Smith. Photo: Stephanie Berger

In an artist’s talk with dance writer Wendy Perron before one of Batsheva’s performances at BAM, an audience member asked Naharin how he came to name his dance technique Gaga. Naharin responded that he liked the way it sounded—like a sound a baby would make. After taking the class, this explanation makes complete sense. Not just because we started class by rolling on the floor, but because of the baby-like wonder I felt exploring new movement. It seemed like I had invented it, and not just I, but nobody else had ever moved in such a way before.

The class began with an hour-long Gaga improvisational session during which the participants responded to verbal and physical cues given by Ian. Directions such as: “Feel your bones floating inside your flesh. And now imagine the connection between your elbow and ear.” Ian placed himself in the middle of the room, positioned as one of us so that sometimes you forgot he was the leader; maybe that was the point. Soon I found myself watching other dancers for cues, listening to Ian’s voice from across the room, and then suddenly he was right in front of me dancing.

None of the participants in the class were performing the same movements but everyone was moving with similar energy, intention, and awareness. How was I moving so quickly and so nimbly? How did I get to the other side of the gigantic studio so fast without slamming into any of the other movers? I discovered new patterns; “creating new pathways” opened up possibilities.

Batsheva dancers at work.

The right leg doing one thing, the left ear doing another, and then bringing them together—I had never thought about that possibility before. Rather, I didn't think it, it just happened. My mind seemed to open up to the possibilities my body was offering based on these inventive suggestions from our instructor. Things were happening in the moment and I just did it... Could I do it again? Let’s try! Did it look good? I don’t know because there were no mirrors in the studio; no mirrors are allowed in Gaga. No pictures either, so you won’t be able to judge whether or not I just felt, and did not look, cool.

The hour of non-stop movement didn't feel like an hour until it was over, when I stopped and realized I was totally sweaty and completely out of breath. I thought I had complex bi-lateral coordination pretty much handled after years of dance classes; I know how that works and, most of the time, it does. But this was the next level. The feeling of doing something completely unexpected with your body is thrilling and watching others in the class making discoveries is moving.

In the second half of the two-hour class, veteran Batsheva dancer Bobbi Smith taught a section of Naharin’s choreography. Conditioned by the warm-up, the movement felt powerful and precise at the same time. Bobbi talked about hitting a wall, surprising yourself with movement, and feeling like an alien. “Don’t anticipate or prepare for the next step with your body, just allow it to happen to you like you don’t know it’s going to happen—like a reaction. When you react in this way someone watching this type of movement will react with the same kind of breath-catching thrill. I can say that after she gave this direction, watching dancers perform the choreography in class did become much more intense and physically dramatic.

Batsheva's Zina Zinchenko and Bobbi Smith. Photo: Stephanie Berger

I watched the Batsheva dancers in Sadeh21, and I know what happened in the studio did not physically approach the mind-blowing movement happening on the stage of the Howard Gilman Opera House. But, after taking Gaga class, I could imagine approaching movement with a mind open to possibilities, curious and imaginative. I could begin to take steps to make my body do what it previously couldn't. That attitude—that everyday persistence about movement and A LOT of practice in the Gaga style—made me move so differently from the beginning of the class to the end of it. I imagine it could foster a lot of changes in a person over a longer period of time. It would also cause a lot of sore muscles but, like they say, no pain is boring.

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